The Blackfeet Reservation may become its own county — and the first new county in Montana in 94 years — under a proposal that will be discussed with Glacier County commissioners on Tuesday and Pondera County commissioners on Wednesday.
Rep. George Kipp III, a Democrat from Heart Butte, plans to ask Glacier and Pondera counties to chip in for a feasibility study that will look at the costs of creating and running Montana’s 57th county. He also hopes to involve the University of Montana, or perhaps the Blackfeet Community College, in preparing the study or helping to fund it.
The proposal comes on the heels of a long, snowy winter in which people in rural areas of the reservation, as well as in Heart Butte in Pondera County on the reservation's border, were stranded for weeks due to deep snow drifts. Food, as well as propane and wood for heating, were in short supply in some areas in Glacier and Pondera counties.
“Last winter, we had no services from the east end of the county,” said Kipp. “They seem to lack any comprehensive design on how to respond in cases of emergencies. Pondera County won’t respond because there’s no tax base here.”
He added that Glacier and Pondera counties were created in 1919, and Indians weren’t given the right to vote until five years later, so they didn’t have a say in where the county seat is located. Kipp said some area residents want the Glacier County courthouse and offices moved from Cut Bank to Browning, which is a larger community in a more central location.
“We’ve lived with this process for 100 years, and 70 percent of the county is on the reservation,” Kipp said. “We have yet to master emergency responses, so we have to look at putting in other agencies, identify other resources, and present it back to the people if it would be feasible.”
If the public likes the idea, state law allows them to circulate a petition to have the matter put before county voters.
“Individuals are all pretty serious about this because of the devastation we witnessed this winter,” Kipp said. “We are starting to see that we need some type of clarity, some type of plan. We need to know if we can better serve ourselves.”
Pondera County Commissioner Janice Hoppes said they have no authority to plow roads on the Blackfeet Reservation, because it’s a sovereign nation, and they were short two plow drivers last winter, which prompted them to focus on clearing bus routes.
But she’s intrigued with the idea of having a new county form that consists of the reservation, and has a lot of questions on how that will play out.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of this concept, and I’m anxious to hear more,” Hoppes said. “Would they operate under sovereign nation status or as a county that only includes the reservation? Do they operate under county laws or tribal laws? Do they elect county commissioners, a clerk and recorder, a treasurer? How do they run elections?”
Before those questions can be answered, Kipp said they first need to do the feasibility study to find out if it’s fiscally possible to have their own county.
“The county and reservation have been joined together like Siamese twins for 100 years,” he said. “We want to know now what the next 100 years will be and start that conversation.
“Glacier County is 700 square miles. Can we exist without them or can they exist without us? The study will show that.”
Glacier County Commissioner Michael DesRosier said he spoke at length with Kipp about the proposal, and the county won’t take a position on how to proceed. But both he and Harold Blattie, the executive director of the Montana Association of Counties, said the cost will be the biggest issue.
For instance, every legal document involving land, including transfers and divorces, would need to have the name changed from the old to the new county.
“I do not believe splitting a county is practical, and nearly impossible due to the costs,” Blattie wrote in an email. “The cost would be astronomical to transcribe all the records for the past 100 years, and I do mean astronomical.
“When we worked with then-Senator (Jeff) Essmann to create the authority to move a boundary between two counties, the title companies estimated the cost to transcribe the records for an area of 10 square miles to be over $200,000 and that was just the land ownership records. I cannot even conceive what the cost would be to do all of the records to split a county. Transcribing and/or transferring every document related to any property transfers, along with every court record, would be prohibitive in my opinion.”
According to the Montana Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, the last time a county was created by a boundary change was Petroleum County in 1924. Montana’s original counties were created between 1865 and 1923.
Yet Kipp is undeterred, and wants to complete the feasibility study. They already have a new name for the county: Pikuni or Pikini (he's not sure of the spelling) County, which is one of the three branches of the Blackfeet Nation.
“A study in 2007, using 2004 statistics, showed there was about $1 billion coming off the seven reservations in Montana that was taxable,” Kipp said. “Everything will be on the table. … We are capable of running our own county.”